Skip to content

Captive in Babylon for 70 years?

A reader asked me to explain the chronology associated with the supposed seventy-year Exile of the Jews in Babylon. Here’s what I found during my research for my book Daniel Unsealed

The Babylonian Exile, which should be more accurately called the Babylonian Judgment, was one of the most important events in Jewish history. The Children of Israel had been warned by God in Deuteronomy 30—just before they entered the land—that their possession of the land promised to the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would depend on their faithfulness to his commandments given through the prophet Moses.

However, for more than eight-hundred years after crossing the Jordan River to take possession of the land, the Israelites, especially during the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, provoked God with their on-again off-again obedience to the Law. Finally, God moved the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II against Jerusalem, destroying the city and the Temple of Solomon in the year 586 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar carried away most of the Jews left alive to exile in Babylon, essentially ending the possession of the land of Eretz Israel by the Jewish people. However, the exile to Babylon was not to be permanent. It was part of God’s promised seventy-year judgment on Israel for its disobedience, according to the words of the prophet Jeremiah who wrote:

And this whole land shall be a desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and that nation, saith the Lord, for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans, and will make it perpetual desolations.” (Jer. 25:11-12)

For thus saith the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place.” (Jer. 29:10)

Since the Babylonian Empire came to a close with the capture of Babylon by the army of Cyrus II the Great of Persia on the sixteenth day of Tashritu (equivalent to the Hebrew month Tishri), which was the date October 5, 539 BCE on the Gregorian calendar, a simple calculation reveals that the period of God’s seventy-year judgment on Israel at the hands of Babylon began in 609 BCE, since it ended in 539 BCE when Babylonia ceased to exist.

In the ninth chapter of the Book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel, writing in 539 BCE and obviously referring back to the words recorded in the twenty-fifth and twenty-ninth chapters of the Book of Jeremiah that were quoted above, reveals that he understood, now that Babylon had fallen, how to calculate Jeremiah’s prophecy about seventy years being accomplished, saying:

In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes, which was made king over the realm of the Chaldeans; In the first year of his reign I Daniel understood by books the number of the years, whereof the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah the prophet, that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem.” (Dan. 9:1-2)

What exactly did Daniel understand? Quite a bit, as it turns out. He understood that the Hebrew prophets and scribes used the number of Passovers that had transpired between events as a way of marking the passing of years. In other words, the seventy years revealed by Jeremiah meant that the period of God’s judgment would end sometime after seventy Passovers had been observed and before the seventy-first Passover could be observed.

Babylon fell in October of 539 BCE, so the last Passover before that event (the last Passover when Israel was subject to Babylonian rule and the last one to be counted in the seventy Passovers of judgment) occurred earlier that spring in the same year Babylon fell to Persia, the year 539 BCE. Counting back seventy Passovers from 539 BCE allowed Daniel to calculate that the first Passover in the period of judgment was the one that occurred in 608 BCE. The chart displayed below will show how the count of the seventy Passovers was done by Daniel, with each year followed by its number in the count.

With the Passover of 608 BCE now understood as the year of the first Passover in the count (that first Passover is shown as “P1” in the table above) that defines the seventy years, what is the event that God used to begin the period of judgment on Israel? Or, to be more Scriptural, what was the historical event about which God said in Jeremiah that after the event had occurred “seventy years will be accomplished” in Babylon?

To answer that question, we must drop back in Jewish history to the reign of Manasseh of Judah. If you recall, Manasseh was a very wicked king, doing deeds so wicked that God declared judgment on Judah, as follows:

“But they hearkened not: and Manasseh seduced them to do more evil than did the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the children of Israel. And the Lord spake by his servants the prophets, saying, Because Manasseh king of Judah hath done these abominations, and hath done wickedly above all that the Amorites did, which were before him, and hath made Judah also to sin with his idols: Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab: and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of mine inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies; Because they have done that which was evil in my sight, and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came forth out of Egypt, even unto this day.” (2 Kings 21:9-15)

When Manasseh died, he was succeeded by his son Amon, who was succeeded by his young son, Josiah, who became king when he was only eight years old. In the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign, in 623/622 BCE, the Book of the Law was discovered in the Temple, which was undergoing restoration. The High Priest Hilkiah had the scribe Shapham read it to the young king. When Josiah realized how far from God that Judah had strayed, he was stricken with grief and sent to the prophetess Huldah to seek God’s instruction, and God answered thus:

And she said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me, Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah hath read: Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be kindled against this place, and shall not be quenched. But to the king of Judah which sent you to enquire of the Lord, thus shall ye say to him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, As touching the words which thou hast heard; Because thine heart was tender, and thou hast humbled thyself before the Lord, when thou heardest what I spake against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and hast rent thy clothes, and wept before me; I also have heard thee, saith the Lord. Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place. And they brought the king word again.” (2 Kings 22:15-20)

Josiah spent the next year restoring Judah to proper worship as commanded by the Law. In 622 BCE, the young king led the people in a celebration of the Great Passover, the largest Passover celebrated since the Children of Israel had entered the promised land. For more than a decade thereafter, the nation and people lived in peace and prospered. Then, things changed. In the spring of 609 BCE, pharaoh Necho left Egypt and moved his army up the coast of Israel, intending to aid his Assyrian allies who were being besieged in the city of Harran by the Babylonians. Josiah, who was apparently allied with Babylon in some manner, met and opposed Necho and his Egyptian army at Megiddo, and was wounded in battle there. Josiah was taken back to Jerusalem, where he died sometime after Passover in 609 BCE. With Josiah’s death, God resumed the judgment that had been paused in recognition of Josiah’s tender heart, and the count of the seventy Passovers decreed by God through Jeremiah began.

Josiah’s death marked the beginning of the seventy-year period of judgment against the nation of Israel at the hands of Babylon that was ordained by God, although the actual exile of the Jews from Judah to Babylon would be realized in stages beginning a few years later circa 605 BCE after the Battle of Carchemesh, ending only when Cyrus granted the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem sometime between the Passover of 539 BCE and the Passover of 538 BCE. It should be noted that the Bible never actually says that the exile (i.e., the time the Jewish people were captive in Babylon) would be seventy years in duration. Instead, it said that “seventy years [of judgement] would be accomplished” during which the nations would serve Babylon, and that is exactly what happened, of course.

The counting of the passage of years by counting Passovers is something that is repeatedly demonstrated throughout the Book of Daniel. That accounting method makes sense with regard to Scripture since the Passover observance, which was commanded to be observed as an annual memorial to the Exodus, follows a few days after the beginning of the new year that begins on the 1st of Nisan, the first month as designated by God in the Bible.

Published inArticlesChronologyExposition